Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Days of Miracle and Wonder:* Why I Give Money to Strangers

Last week, I was in Penn Station, waiting to board my train after four days in the city, and a man caught my attention. He was leaning on the wall outside the waiting room. (If you've been to Penn Station, you know there are no chairs outside the waiting room, only places to lean.) He wasn't particularly disheveled. He was wearing regular work clothes, jeans and a jacket. He asked me for change, because he was hungry. He said, I just want to eat.

Of course, I said. Everyone needs to eat.

I had a twenty and some ones, so I gave him the four dollars. I happened to be cash-poor (read: credit-ok)1 and I wanted to hold onto my twenty.

I've been told I'm a sucker. In fact, I've been lightly lectured, corrected, or generally 'splained-to about not giving money to panhandlers. But I did. And most often, if I've got small bills handy, I will.

Here's the thing: I don't know if he wanted to eat. He might have wanted to buy a beer. Or whatever else you might buy with four dollars -- which isn't much. It was enough for a sandwich if he was hungry.

Everyone needs to eat.

As a kid, I grew up on food stamps and medicaid. My clothes were home made, or they were cheap. My junior prom dress came from a thrift store and my teachers pitched in to pay for my AP exams. I never looked disheveled, and I was never quite hungry. But I understand an empty pocket.

But recently, I had a conversation where some big assumptions were being made about people on welfare or food stamps, that they're all just cheating the system. Just getting what they can, for free.

If you've ever checked out of a grocery store with food stamps, there's no swell of pride there while you separate your groceries into what you can buy and what you can't buy. Not much happiness in pulling out a WIC check or a Medicaid card, either.

because douchebaggery like this exists
I answered, I actually know people who are on assistance, and they're not cheating. I was met with some incredulity, until I explained a bit further -- which I won't do here. Because it's a lousy thing to have to explain -- why someone gets assistance. It's not  my place. And honestly, it's not yours, either. But I know, there's a general assumption that people on welfare are also driving nice cars, they're wearing designer clothes, they're using iPhones and they have the top level of digital cable. And here's what I'm telling you: sure, those people exist. And no, they are not the majority. Half of the people who benefit from food stamps are children.2

And I know, you can give a man a fish, right? Or you can teach him to fish. But no one is learning how to fish while still hungry. Recognition is a form or respect; it's a form of love. If I stop and acknowledge someone's pain, someone's hardship, with a couple of dollars, it's very different from telling them how to go about getting their own dollar. All that says is, I know better than you. And if you were like me, you would understand that too. I've given in more organized ways, and less organized ways. I've given more. And I've given when I'm sure the reason the person asked for money was not what they told me.

Before the Penn Station incident,  I passed a man sitting on 2nd Avenue, begging. He rattled a cup, and he didn't ask me for anything when I passed.

He said, Hello Sweetheart, and I turned back to say hello.

He said, I like your smile. He was grinning.

I said, I like your smile too. And truth be told, right then I loved him.

Jesus, disguised as a homeless man
Years ago, a man who panhandled regularly outside The Cathedral in downtown Syracuse, a big guy who usually wore a heavy tweed sport coat and had shoes held together with duck tape, asked Geoff for money, and Geoff gave him five dollars. He hugged Geoff, even while Geoff held a still baby Liam. He told Geoff he loved him.

Love might be the greatest thing you can offer the world, if you can't give it a few dollars.

I know plenty of people who refuse to give money to people who ask for it. You never know what they're actually doing with the money. Who are they to rely on handouts? Why should you just give it to him?

Why should you just give it to him?

On the way to Penn, in the taxi, I passed Saint Francis of Assisi on 31st Street, a small, beautiful
Not the actual Manhattan statue, but very similar.
church stuck in between taller buildings. In the window, the image of Francis, with birds. On the sidewallk, outside the church, a bronze statue of the saint, cross-legged on the cement, with his hand out, asking.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not telling you to give money to strangers, or to anyone for that matter, and I'm not telling you how to. I'm just telling you why I do.

Because you don't know who he is.

Because really, there's a fine line between the man with the cup and the rest of us, you just can't see it. With a handful of different choices, he could be you. He might be your brother, or your mother, or he might be something divine that you're just too tired to see.

* Don't cry baby, don't cry.
1. I'm still reaping years of not making enough money and yes, still using credit cards, for the worst reasons: when I don't have the cash.
2. Source: department of agriculture: of course, with a government shut down, good luck finding any actual information there.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Girl with the Most Cake: Some Issues with Weight

There were several cover concepts for The Conjurer before we decided on the character Dorothea from the title story. At the end of that story, Dorothea takes her dress off and walks into a field naked while a photographer takes photos of her from behind. I wanted a woman like her: young, but round, with long, brown hair.

The Three (totally fucking fat) Graces
There was a joke that if we couldn't find the right stock photo, or the right model, I would have to put my own ass on the cover. I'm not right for it. I don't have Dorothea's long brown hair, and I'm not as young. She's twenty-six. I'm forty. Her skin has something mine no longer has. An elasticity and shine. But whether or not I was round enough was not up for debate. In fact, someone, in the discussion, used the word Rubenesque.

I went back to my hotel room and googled Rubens paintings. In my head I thought of other ways I  might describe my own body: vintage, pin up, French nude. Rubenesque? I thought. That's fucking fat.

I have weight issues. I've had them a long time, and probably the only thing that predates them are my hair issues, which started at -- no joke -- birth.*

College grad 1995. Not fucking fat.
I've never been really fat. I've also never been really thin, although I've been lean. When I was a
teenager, my parents had me record my weight every day. Because of this careful tracking, I can tell you that I weighed somewhere between 125 and 135 for all of junior high and high school. I'm five foot four. That's not fat. That's pretty average. I stayed under 140 all through college.

Here's what I know about weight. You can try to persuade me otherwise, but it's what I've witnessed. If you've always been thin, never struggled, people like you, and they secretly resent you. If you've been average to plump and have to work at getting thin, and then get thin -- people resent you. In fact, people will tell you things like, Don't
2005. Totally fucking thin.
get too thin!
Or, oh, you're too skinny now. When you gain the weight back, people are secretly happy. Unless they haven't seen you in years. These people remember you as thin, and when they see you, the weight hangs there like a weird cloud. Oh, she's fat now. If you're really heavy, people worry about your health, and don't think at all about your looks, and when you lose weight, they're supportive, and they cheer you on, but not because they ever think you will actually look good.

Harsh? Maybe. People are harsh.

I gained weight after my dad died and I moved to Clinton. Before that, I'd been on the South Beach Diet; I was going to the gym three or more days a week. I weighed somewhere between 125 and 130 at my thinnest, and I had lean muscle. I was thirty-two, and I had youth and metabolism on my side. I didn't gain weight all at once. I gained it slowly -- the way people do when they stop going to the gym as often, when they stop caring about whether or not they have pizza, or a sandwich, or a cookie, when you spend days at a desk, or on a couch, or in a bed, convincing yourself that you can keep going, can keep doing anything at all. 

Probably things stem back to an event. I used to tell people I started drinking when my brother went to jail. I could say that I got fat after my dad died. We moved within days of the funeral. I sent my youngest to kindergarten, and my oldest to middle school, where they knew no one. We didn't have a place to live yet; we stayed with relatives until our apartment was ready. Our house was sold. We lived somewhere else now. It took my five years to gain all this weight. Just like it took me all of my thirties to develop a drinking habit.

What I don't like about  my body isn't its size. I love women's bodies, especially when they are round.
Katya Zharkova
What I'm carrying with me isn't just the weight of fat: it's the weight of grief, or struggle. Stress, anxiety, anger. It doesn't feel like who I am. It holds me back. At my worst, I think it's all people see. At my real worst, it's all I see.

I would like to drop pounds off the side of a bridge, where they would either sink like rocks into the creek, or fly away like sudden sparrows, a dip, and then flight.

I will more likely churn them off, sweating. Trying not to cry.

The first yoga class I took in town (I had done some yoga at home for years), I was in a room full of women, doing really difficult Bikram poses. It was hot, and my muscles felt used, charged, purposeful. When we went into half tortoise pose, I put my head on my mat and burst into tears. What is happening? I thought. Oh my God, don't do this here. It was within weeks of our move. I held it in. I got it together. I stood up, and did some beautiful backbends.**

It's still there. Inside. All that shit I swallowed or didn't exhale, or didn't cry out, or even say to anyone. And now it's gathered around my middle. Where I hate it.

This is not me. I don't know where I went.

*Another blog, another day. I can't get through too many issues at once.
** Turns out, this is a pretty normal reaction during yoga.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

You Don't Know Who I Really Am

I am misunderstood a lot. I'm used to it. My tone is sometimes drier, or more sarcastic than people expect. People who don't know me are often surprised that I have children. You're a mom? they gasp. Sometimes, it's hard to know me. I keep stuff in. I'm not always open with my feelings. My mom has always said that if something happened to me -- a divorce, lost job, etc -- she would know maybe six months later. Probably, this is a trait that I got from my dad. He was good at keeping up appearances. Worried that anyone would notice if something was not just right. He had a public persona, and a private persona, and probably a hidden persona too. He used to tell us, You don't know who I really am. 

My point here, is that I'm used to it. For years, a lot of my family, and many of my friends have not
quite known me. In particular, my family has assumed that I write about my brother -- without really taking into consideration that most fiction writers don't write about anyone. What we do is more complicated than that -- it's a pastiche of many things, many people, many traits, bits of conversations overheard, the weird things that happen to people, or the bad decisions they make.

Bad decisions make good stories.  Right? I'm used to it.

But this week, I experienced something new, or something I guess maybe I haven't in a long time: another writer misunderstood my work.

Look, I hate fictional bean counting. It makes me squeamish -- that constant looking for where you might be in a story. It's self-destructive, to the person doing the looking, and it's hurtful to the writer.  Of course I've included details from things I've seen or heard or experienced. How could I not? In fact, I like to think that that exactly what makes me a writer: I notice everything. I'll notice if you have freckles in your eyelids. If you have one green fingernail. If your voice cracks like you have indigestion, or if you have a slightly wandering eye. Everything. And I remember most things too. Conversations, smells, colors. It doesn't matter what I get wrong. If your bathroom was yellow and I remember it as pink, in my story, it's pink, because it's real to me.

People either love it, or they hate it. I don't know how many assholes in bars have said to me, You should write about me. I've had an interesting life. People hear you're a writer, they have suddenly have shit to say to you. Or not. The flip side is Don't you dare put that in a story. 

But I'm not putting anyone in a story. Only pieces. Shards. Tiny slivers of ghosts.

What I'm talking about is craft. The process. Creation. It's like pulling threads from a thousand different raveling blankets and making a rug.

In college, a professor told me that Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher used to argue about who
would get to steal the conversation they'd heard at a party. And after all, it was lovely Oscar Wilde who said, Good writers borrow, great writers steal.

The story in question is one that I think of as here. In my own backyard. The location is never named, but as I've gotten used to this town, it shows up more in my work. Another story, Flood, takes place right on our street, in a house we considered buying, but really, they could be anywhere. In any upstate NY town, or in Washington State, near my mom. There's something desolate about the rural roads, about the trailers, about a cemetery underneath pines.

Am I stealing? I'm listening. I'm always listening, watching, tasting. And the only way you can stop me is to stay away from me. Maybe that's a decision for some, but I hope not. I don't think of myself as a threat, or even a thief. Only a writer.

P.S. THIS is what you get when you google image search "sexy writer." Right. On.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where I Have Always Been Coming To

For Christmas in 1991, my mom picked up two books for me. They were both by A.S. Byatt: Possession, which had recently been released in paperback, and Still Life. I hadn't read A.S. Byatt. The books had beautiful covers that felt like satin. I still have them.

I struggled through Possession first. It was heavy with poetry, with historical letters, diary entries, words even, like frisson, that I just didn't know yet. I didn't get it until I read it a second time, a couple of years later.

I read Still Life the following summer, and again the summer of 1994, before beginning my honors thesis. In between, I read The Virgin in the Garden, in an old 70s hardcover that my friend Lena got for me, maybe at a flea market. I have that one too.

My copy of Still Life is covered in my own annotations. I wrote my first really serious paper on that book, my undergraduate honor's thesis. It was on Still Life as a piece of impressionist painting. I spent a long time delving into Impressionism as a movement, and then taking apart Byatt's language to show that what she was doing was similar to what the painters had done in the late 19th century. I used passages like this one:

Anthea lay as though dancing on the hot folded sand, the pale lively hair curved outward on the duck-egg blue towel, on which her lovely profile rested, the skin darker than the tossed gold, the marvelous bones picked out by clear cut shadows and glitter of sweat. Her bathing dress was peacock, rippled green and blue, like waves of an illuminated sea (Byatt, Still Life, from the chapter Seascape, p. 79).

But further, Byatt struggles with representation in the novel, with the representation of things, of being able to hold things up, to show, as it were, and she relates this particular struggle of writing to the work of painting, in the Prologue:

At first [Alexander] thought he could write a plain, exact verse with no figurative language, in which a yellow chair was the thing itself, a yellow chair, as a round gold apple was an apple or a sunflower a sunflower. . . . But it couldn't be done. Language was against him, for a start. Metaphor lay coiled in the name sunflower (Byatt, Still Life, 2).

I wrote again, on The Virgin in the Garden, on the iconography of Elizabeth I, and again, on Byatt's short story "Body Art," in which I discussed the pregnant body as the queerest body of all. Both of these infused with art, with heady language, with odd human relationships, sex, disconnection, but peace, too, and stability in the quotidian, the ordinary.

Me and Dame Antonia, 2005
This is my context. Before I knew it, these books shaped me in a way I couldn't imagine. Before I discovered Raymond Carver, before I read Flannery O'Connor, or Joyce, or Denis Johnson, or anyone else who helped me learn how to write a short story, taut, minimal, withholding like an iceberg. Before that, I had Byatt, who taught me, very simply, to love the sentence. And to love the characters she created: smart, mouthy, gingery Frederica, her soft, golden, doomed sister, Stephanie, poor troubled Marcus, heavy, brooding Daniel, elegant Alexander. I loved them. I still do.

On Friday, A.S. Byatt comes to Clinton to read at Hamilton College. I've been invited to have lunch with her, and some other professors from the department. I've met her before, in 2005, when I saw her read at Arizona State University, and was able to ask her a couple of questions, and have her sign some books.

I don't know what I'll say to her, or what I even want to ask. She led me to George Eliot for God's sake. I read almost all of Eliot (save Adam Bede. Yes, I even read Romola.) to understand Byatt. At one time, I thought of becoming a Byatt scholar, if that's a thing that even exists. Not for love so much, but for volume, for sheer volume of information, for layers and layers of meaning and evidence, buried in every text. She taught me to be a scholar. To love language, and she helped deepen my love of art.

I walked away from scholarship, from the Ph.D. But on Friday, I get to lunch with one of my favorite minds, as a writer, as a grown up. If it's an early 40th birthday present from the universe, I'll take it.

*My title is a quote from Possession, "This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere."

Friday, February 15, 2013

In Between Days

not the cover, just an idea
I'm expecting a new book.

The Conjurer arrives in May from Standing Stone Books.

What should you expect from The Conjurer?

The stories are longer, the characters, older. It's just as anxious, and even sexier than States, but it lingers in heart break a little longer, and for different reasons. It wades through loss.

Here's what my kick ass friend, writer Melissa Febos had to say about it:

These stories, like the characters who inhabit them, are tough-skinned and tender-hearted, and wickedly funny, as only the broken can be. Jennifer Pashley is the real conjurer here, pulling beauty from the despairs of ordinary people, splitting the skin of everyday tragedies, of people whose hearts have been ravaged and whose hands have done hurting, to reveal the hot pulsing hope in them, in all of us.

I'm gearing up for a Conjurer reading tour, but in the meantime, I'll be reading this Sunday -- along with Michael Nye, Kate Hill Cantrill, and Danny Goodman (whose website has a mustache and cussing, for fuck's sake!) -- for Sunday Salon, at Jimmy's 43 in Manhattan. I'll read from The Conjurer, but I'll have States for sale.

Hope to see many of you there.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Straight out of My Own Bones: Some Thoughts on The Bell Jar

It's the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Here, in honor, is an essay I posted at the Downtown Writer's Center's blog a couple of years ago.

A few years ago, I outlived Sylvia Plath. And somehow, despite an aborted attempt at a PhD in American Studies, and a robust American poetry course as an undergrad, I'd read a lot of Plath's poems, but I'd never read The Bell Jar. Until this week. I read the whole thing on Monday. I haven't read an entire book in a day since high school, when I read all of The Great Gatsby in one sitting.

Why didn't I read it before? I think because no one takes it seriously. It's sort of that memoir-disguised-as-novel written specifically for college girls who cut their wrists for attention. Right?

In her introduction to the 1997 edition, Frances McCullough writes that if Sylvia Plath had lived, “it's hard to say whether … the novel would ever have been published in this country.” McCullough goes on to question what might have happened if Plath had written more novels, better novels. Would she have returned to her first novel, The Bell Jar, and thought differently? Would she have self-censored? Told less of the truth? Crafted the truth into something less raw? Something dulled at the edges, or as Wordsworth says, recollected in traquility?

We'll never know. As McCullough says, “of course Plath did die a tragic death at the age of thirty, and the book's subsequent history has everything to do with that fact.” By which she means that Plath's suicide makes the book a cult favorite, but she also means that if Plath didn't die, the book might never have seen the light of day – because it's not very good. Right?

I was surprised. It's not the best book I've ever read. The plot – maybe because it's so true – feels predictable. The ending feels a little like a a Lifetime Movie. But, as McCullough points out, “her voice has such intensity, such a direct edge to it,” it forgives the structural flaws.
Take the opening lines:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along all your nerves.
And she never lets you go. It's a close, tunnel-vision narrative, right out of the eye-sockets of Esther Greenwood. And that voice never waivers.

It's not The Kite Runner. It's not a globally significant narrative. In fact, it doesn't stray very far from the geography, class or political background that it knows. So why does it matter? Why did it ever matter? Because one college educated white girl from New England was depressed one year and wanted to get it off her chest? Wanted to drag you into the eye of the storm?

This is why: because in her marriage negotiations with Buddy Willard, Esther Greenwood stumbles upon this observation:
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems anymore. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state. 
That's why.  Because more than anything, this book struggles with the notion of either / or. Esther can be a poet or a mother. She can be an editor or a wife. You can pick one fruit off the fig tree, she says, and once you pick one, the rest of them wither and die.
What makes it so hard? Why are women prone to second guessing? Can't you do both? Be a mother and a writer? Tell the truth, and tell it hard, unfiltered, like a holy scream*, and do it well? I'm asking you. I've second-guessed my own answer.

You can debate Plath's answer – the suicide answer – the answer No, you can't. And if you try, you won't get out alive. But what you can't ignore here are the questions that Plath asks – about agency, about identity, and about telling the truth without apologizing. Or that what she asks has resonance, regardless of her own solution: Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones. 

*from the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry – the really old, 1972 version I have, which was given to me by poet Barbara Moore. In it, Anne Sexton is listed as still living. In the intro to Sylvia Plath, the editors write “Sylvia Plath's poetry is a document of extremity. Her sensitivity is inordinate, but so is her ability to express it. The result is a holy scream, a splendid agony – beyond sex, beyond delicacy, beyond all but art.”